Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is the key to a healthy diet.
It sounds easy enough. But, what exactly does it mean to shop the perimeter? And how do you do it?
First, shopping the perimeter means to stick to the outer areas of the grocery store. Traditionally, these areas are Produce (fruits and veggies), Meat, and Dairy.
The idea is to stay away from the inner aisles as much as possible. The middle part of the store isn’t covered in poisonous goo. The inner aisles just contain food that is tempting and often filled with sneaky, unhealthy ingredients that can do more harm than good when it comes to your health.
When you shop the perimeter you are sticking to the areas that have “real food” with very few ingredients, that has been minimally processed.
That means avoiding things like prepackaged snacks, traditional cereals, canned foods, chips, cookies, boxed convenience foods, etc. Read more about starting a real food lifestyle here.
Before we go any further, let’s be honest. If you’re normal, and I’m betting that you are, it’s almost impossible to avoid those foods forever. Every now and again some of those items will probably sneak into your shopping cart. I’ve been known to indulge with some chips and dip myself. (But, you won’t tell anyone, will you?).
The goal is to make smarter shopping and healthier eating a regular habit. Shopping the perimeter should be something you do because you want to. Do it because you enjoy the health benefits and how it makes you look and feel. If it’s a dreaded chore, you’ll never keep it up.
For me, I want to eat as healthy as I can, as often as I can. When I do eat or drink something I probably shouldn’t, I don’t beat myself up. I just do better the next day.
Let’s dive in.
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Bakery Department – All those yummy baked goods are on the perimeter but, should be avoided. I’m not a fan of the effects of bread and gluten as a general rule. (Read about it here and here.) I LOVE bread, but it doesn’t love me. I get very bloated when I eat bread. So, I generally avoid it. Once in a while, I will get my daughter or my husband something small from the bakery. I know we shouldn’t use food as a reward. But, I want them to want to eat well and look forward to the occasional treat. Rather than revolt and resent me for trying to change their eating habits.
Produce Department – Here’s where all the good stuff is. Spend a lot of time in the Produce Department and experiment. You can’t really go wrong. Here are a few tips to make shopping for produce easier and maybe a little cheaper:
- Look for colors when shopping for produce. You’ll get the most health benefits with deeper colors (dark leafy greens, red bell peppers, oranges, purple cabbage, tomatoes, etc.). Price shop in your area for the best deals on produce.
- Buy produce that’s in Season. It can save you a ton of money.
- Decide what you’re going to eat for the week based on what’s on sale and in Season. It’s much cheaper than going to the store with a big list and buying food even if it’s not on sale.
- Whenever possible, buy organic produce. I know “organic” can get a bit pricey. Conventional produce can contain a lot of unhealthy chemicals and pesticides. There are a few ways to save money when looking for produce with the least amount of pesticides. First, avoid the Dirty Dozen. (Read about that here). If you still can’t afford to go the organic route, clean your produce in a “vinegar bath”. Take a large Tupperware bowl and fill it with cold water and a 1/2 cup of *white vinegar. Add the fruit or veggies. Let them hang out in the water for 10 or 15 mins., then rinse. You’ll be shocked at what’s left in the bottom of the bowl. Don’t worry, if you air-dry the produce for a few minutes, your grapes won’t taste like vinegar!!
- Another tip for saving money on organic is to go for “conventional” produce if you’re NOT going to eat the outside. For instance, apples are known to have a lot of pesticides on them. I try to only buy organic apples. When I can’t, I “bathe them” in the vinegar/water solution. I buy regular oranges because no one eats the peels. Organic grapes are really hard to find and tend to be REALLY expensive. I always use the vinegar bath for grapes.
- If you’re eating a lot of salads and want to avoid traditional bottled salad dressing, try vinegar and oil as your dressing. Be sure to use a good quality vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. I like these brands *here and here. For a little more zest, squeeze a fresh lemon or orange over the salad as well.
Meat Department – This is where the bulk of your protein will come from. Of course, there are plant-based protein sources, but nothing compares to getting your protein from meat.
The meat department can get a bit tricky. You really have to decide what’s important to you and what you want and can afford to spend. Grass-fed and locally sourced is the best and the healthiest in terms of how it’s raised and the amount antibiotics and hormones that are given to the animals. But, it’s also the most expensive. When the Farmer’s Markets are open I always look for locally produced beef, chicken, and poultry. Not only is it cheaper than finding grass-fed meat in the grocery store, but I’m able to ask questions to the farmers in person. Plus, it’s a great bonus to support the local farmers.
A lot of labels found on meat in the grocery store, don’t mean much and can be confusing. Check out this great chart to help you decipher the labels when buying meat/chicken/pork.
Since we eat a lot of vegetables and meat for dinner instead of recipes with packaged ingredients, I don’t let anything go to waste. If I buy a whole chicken I make sure to get several meals out of it. Then I save the bones to make my own chicken stock. (One less thing I have to buy later.) Meat is more expensive than vegetables, so most of our dinner plates are filled with veggies. Additionally, we always eat leftovers. If I’m going to spend a little more money to eat well, I can’t throw away perfectly good food.
Dairy Department – Milk, butter, eggs, etc., the labels there can be just as tricky as the meat department. Here is a chart to help with egg labels. Here are a few other things to look for when shopping in the dairy section:
- Just like meat, the best place to get eggs is from a local farmer.
- Grass Fed milk and dairy is usually the healthiest but can get pricey. Organic Milk is a good alternative if you cannot afford Grass Fed. Regardless of which type milk you buy, stick with whole milk for the best benefits. Avoid skim milk.
- Avoid non-food items like Margarine and “buttery” spreads.
- When buying yogurt, read your ingredients. Keep the commercials in mind. Most yogurt is marketed to appeal to a broad number of people. That usually means there will be additives and ingredients that are cheap, making it taste yummy. Especially if they are marketing to children. You can find plain yogurt or Grass Fed yogurt and add honey, nuts, fruit, etc. For the kids, there are great organic options like the squeeze yogurt tubes. I buy them on sale and freeze them.
- When buying cheese, you can save money by buying block cheese (when it’s on sale) and grating it yourself. Shredded cheese is pricier and contains extra ingredients (like cellulose, yikes). Grated cheese will last for months in the freezer. Take out only as much as you need.
- Watch your cheese slices too. The ones we grew up with (in the wrappers) contain very little milk at all.
Refrigerated Juice – This is technically not a traditional section like Dairy or Produce, but Refrigerated Juice Sections are popping up all over in grocery stores, usually near the Produce Department. You think you’re picking up something healthy and then read the label only to find out your bottle only contains 5-10% juice. Look past the pretty packaging and get the bottles with 100% juice. Here’s my article on Healthy Drinks you might like.
Food and food manufacturing has changed a lot in the last 10-20 years, so has our health as a result. Do the best you can for your health by reading labels, stick to the basics, and choose real food when shopping the perimeter. Your body will thank you.
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